‘Morphin’ Time’ – The Dos & Don’ts of pursuing VC as an MBA

On March 6th, I sat aboard a flight home from San Francisco, where members of the Entrepreneurship & Venture Capital (EVC) Group traveled to probe the minds of Silicon Valley’s venture capital elite. I found myself reflecting deeply on advice we had received in response to the question that, no doubt, these folks hear all the time: “How can a soon to be newly minted MBA crack it on Sandhill Road?”

            By James Harris, Class of 2015

            By James Harris, Class of 2015

In our endeavor to find the answer, we were fortunate enough to solicit advice from some remarkable individuals, including but not limited to: Eric Young (Co-Founder & GP, Canaan Partners), Arif Janmohamed (Parter, Lightspeed), Aditya Singh (Partner, Foundation Capital), Rory O'Driscoll (Partner, Scale VP) and Venky Ganesan (GP, Menlo Ventures). While this may not sound like an impressive list to you, for somebody that has thrown everything and the kitchen sink at securing a chance to work as a VC, I felt like I was 7 years old, on my way to meet with the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers to understand how I could play my part in defending the galaxy. Despite the unfortunate fact that these folks were not clad in color coded spandex suits or helmets with opaque visors (their cars may be electric and their thermostats smart, but the Friday dress code is still as boring as ours), the advice we received around pursuing a career in venture packed a powerful punch. Informed by my experience in the industry (Detroit Venture Partners, Lightbank), and by the advice received from the Silicon Valley Power Rangers themselves, here are the Dos and Don’ts for pursuing a career in venture as an MBA:

Do: Focus and specialize: “The generalist model in VC is dead. Identify a focus area and develop deep, domain expertise” – Aditya Singh, Foundation Capital. In a market where money is cheap and competition among private investors is fierce, domain expertise is critical to securing proprietary deal flow. A unicorn in the portfolio and a stellar investment brand won’t hurt, but the top (Silicon Valley) entrepreneurs today demand deep and focused experience that a generalist just doesn’t have.

Do: Break your own rules: “Some of the most successful venture investments come about when investors break their own rules” – Venky Ganesan, Menlo Ventures. Venky’s words are just as relevant to pursuing a venture career as they are to investing. You need to be prepared to take a pay cut (I could have made more at Starbucks last summer), a boring job that might one day be relevant (like sales … Ahhh!), or responsibilities that aren’t interesting or sexy. Get comfortable with breaking your own rules.

Do: Have opinion and perspective: “VC is about taking a point of view with limited info … when meeting a VC, be prepared to clearly articulate an opinion on an industry or sector” - Arif Janmohamed - Lightspeed. Develop theses around a few industries or sectors of interest, and identify 2-3 companies that you can recommend for investment. Even if you’re flat out wrong, your hypotheses will be honed in time for the next meeting, with the next VC.

Do: Get your feet wet: “Technology affords us the opportunity to act as VCs today” - Venky Ganesan, Menlo Ventures. Start angel investing with small cheques using crowdfunding platforms like Angelist or FundersClub. To be able to talk about a portfolio of early stage companies you have actually invested in is powerful.

Do: Be Patient: “It’s not just successful investments that require a huge amount of luck and great timing. It’s the career pursuit, as well” - Arif Janmohamed - Lightspeed. Even if you do all of the right things, chances are you still need to be prepared to wait.

Don’t: Fake it ‘til you make it: There’s no such thing. In my final interview with Hyde Park Angels, I was asked which resources I use to track companies and emerging technology trends. “Flipboard,” I responded confidently (Seriously, dude? I still cringe every time I revisit that moment). I’d never heard of Crunchbase and didn’t read TechCrunch or VentureBeat. Safe to say they could see through me like cellophane.

Don’t: Oversell yourself: Articulating your value prop and demonstrating commitment to the role is crucial to securing any job, but let’s not sound like the broken Dusty Springfield record these folks are subjected to day in day out, “No matter what you do, I only want to be with you!” Oh, and never drop your resume over coffee.

Don’t: View professional services as a ‘stepping stone’: According to a number of valley VCs, consulting or banking is tantamount to “kicking the can down the road,” and delays your mastery of the first ‘Do’ on this list. Sure, the skillset is relevant and heck, we got bills to pay, but get close to a product instead.

Don’t: Stop trying: “Make sure you do three things: 1) Give yourself permission to win – most people don’t give themselves permission to dream big enough; 2) Develop a plan that supports that dream; and 3) Make sure there is purpose attached to 1) & 2) – after all, why are you doing it?” – Venky Ganesan, Menlo Ventures. Despite the uncertainty and woeful odds attached to pursuing a career in venture capital, as with anything, you need to find your dream and forge a path towards it. The MBA is a great place to start – it’s ‘morphin’ time’